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A Series of Tableaux with Narration

A brief look at the Finns in Fitchburg

Presented at a regular monthly meeting of the Finnish-American Club of Saima, at the Co-op Center on February 12, 1964.

Sponsored by Educational Committee of Club:

Toini Laakso, chairman
Louise Tenander
Savele Syrjala
Elna Edwards
Thelma Koutonen
Miriam Lehto
Toivo Wainonen
Norman Carlson

Narration prepared by Miriam Lehto, assisted by Savele Syrjala, Louise Tenander, Toini Laakso, and Elna Edwards.

Participants in tableaux:

Lorna Laakso
Richard Lehto
Toini Laakso
Norman Carlson
Elna Edwards
J. Raymond Edwards
Savele Syrjala
Toivo Wainonen
Thelma Koutonen

Narrator: Miriam Lehto

Music: Elna Carlson

(A 45-minute presentation, including narration, tableaux, and background music)


"The Story of a Cooperative: A Brief History of United Co-operative Society of Fitchburg", published 1947
Savele Syrjala, author

"Suomalaiset Amerikassa", published 1899
Akseli Järnefelt, author

"Sow the Golden Seed" (Story of the Raivaaja), published 1955
Prof. John I. Kolehmainen

"Kalevan Ritarien ja Kalevan Naisten Ylikokoukset", published 1946

"Finnish Churches in Fitchburg"
Paper by Rev. William A. Sumner, May 14, 1959
Copy at Fitchburg Public Library
(Prepared for talk given at Fitchburg Historical Society)

Talk given by Lauri Hannula, May 14, 1959, at Fitchburg Historical Society. Copy at Fitchburg Public Library.


In keeping with Fitchburg's Bicentennial this year, the Finnish-American Club of Saima reviews here briefly the history of the Finns in Fitchburg. Although the story of the Finns in America goes back to the beginning of America, it is known that Fitchburg had a few Finns in the 1840's. It is related that in 1888 a Finnish employe at the Putnam Machine Shop was asked to read some letters and papers that had been left a fellow worker by his parents who had died when he was a young child. From these papers it was learned that a family had arrived here from Kuusamo, Finland, consisting of a man, his wife and son. On the death of the parents, the young boy was taken into an American family. However, no names were given so there is no definite knowledge of this first Finnish family here.

In those days Finland was a duchy of Russia and immigration reports listed any arrivals that may have emigrated from Finland as Russians - also many of the Finns then had Swedish names. Therefore, early immigrants are difficult to track down.

It is known that from around 1870 on the Finns began to dribble into Fitchburg and that by 1887 Fitchburg was known to have about 70 Finns. In 1888, 40 Finns arrived in one group, and it is interesting to note that for their first night here they had to be lodged in the town lockup which was in the basement of City Hall. The greatest number of Finnish immigrants to come to this city, however, were in the years from 1890 to 1910.

Why did they come here? Certainly the earlier ones were the adventurers, and later they came primarily to attempt to better their living conditions. Some came to escape Russian persecution and conscription into the Russian army. Also, New England appealed to some because of its geographical similarities to Finland. Later Finns settled in Fitchburg mainly because of friends or relatives here, and transportation costs were cheaper than going out to the Middle West where Finns were also settling. I am sure that many came here simply to make a fortune and return to their native country - for "weren't America's streets paved with gold"?

Tableau I. -- Two immigrants just off the train at the Fitchburg depot.

Early Life

Most of the early immigrants were young - between 20 and 25 years old - from deprived backgrounds, economically at least. In almost all instances they had borrowed passage money from friends and relatives - either here or in Finland. They had had very little schooling, but almost everyone could read and write. They found work for the most part in the textile mills, factories, and the quarry. Women worked in the textile mills also, and as domestics. Their wages were from $2. to $5. a week.

Apparently the reputation of the early Finnish settlers in Fitchburg was not very reputable. They were thought of as a boisterous group, uncouth, with much drinking and fighting. Around 1899 the city was shocked by two brutal murders among the Finns. Fortunately all the Finns were not of this caliber - for by 1899 there were at least 20 homeowners.

Alex Rosnell, a Finnish sea captain, is the first known business man of Finnish origin. He had a small paper pulp factory on River Street (Swanson Baking Co. site for many years). He later moved it to New Hampshire where it was completely demolished by a flood. Pekka Laamanen was the first grocer. His shop was on Main Street, but for some reason was not long in operation. The very first homeowner was a man by the name of Michael Michaelson, called "Ryssä'n Maikki". He built a house on Mechanic Street, which may still be standing today.

By 1904 there were two Finnish newspapers in Fitchburg, five Finnish Markets (groceries and meats combined), three men’s clothing stores, two steam baths, a contractor, a builder, and one drugstore. Their main service at first was to their country-men. Finnish immigrants in 1904 also owned about 125 farms within a 15-mile radius of Fitchburg. They were known as thrifty and trustworthy folk, who had waited to purchase these farms until they had $1,000. in cash as downpayment.

Finns here were described in 1904 by John Faxon, of the Fitchburg Historical Society, as "mild-mannered, even-tempered and slow to anger". There are a few black sheep among them now. There was quite a contingent of "bad men" among them earlier but they have become less numerous because their country-men would not tolerate them.

Social life in the early years among the Finns consisted of hiking to neighboring farms - and the social drink in those days was milk, which at that time cost 24¢ for 8 quarts. (Other food was comparable in price then, and so were the wages - about $1,00 for a l0-hour day). At the first "Juhannus juhla" (St. John's eve celebration) in Fitchburg, it is said that that there were only 10 people present. The first civic appearance of Finns on record was in 1888 at City Hall, during a week-long carnival. A Finnish men's chorus, which had an excellent reception, sang there. There was also a tug-of-war at this event for which a Finnish team had been selected from the Haywood Chair Factory on River Street (later the Iver Johnson Company) - and needless to say, the Finns won!

The first home for many Finns here was a boarding house. There were several but the very first one was called "Pillilä" and was located on River Street. When a Finn arrived at the railroad station, the hack drivers would take him to this boarding house as to his home. Living quarters were not too spacious: including as a general rule, a kitchen and three rooms. At one time 30 persons were housed there.

Tableau II.--Dinner-time at the Boarding house.

Churches and Organizations

Early church services among the Finnish people in Fitchburg were held in homes with itinerant pastors, mostly lay preachers that were not too popular.

Rev. Andrew Groop came to the city in 1887, serving first as minister in the Swedish church. (He was born in Finland, having gone to Sweden at the age of 17). He was persuaded to start a Finnish church - and thus the Finnish Congregational Church organized in 1895, with Mr. Groop as pastor. As early as 1892 Sunday school classes were started - and the first church services were held in the German church. Mr. Groop later donated land to the congregation for the erection of a church building on Elm Street, and the first services there were held on Christmas morning in 1904.

The Lutheran church also organized in the early 1890's. In 1898 the Temperance Society and Saima Society were the prime social groups, and that year, together with the Lutheran church organization, voted to buy a lot of land on Mechanic Street at a cost of $541.80. Donations from members were collected at $1.00 a month, and in 1900 the Lutheran Church was built (later called the Messiah Lutheran Church, which incidentally was destroyed by fire two years ago). This church was dedicated to serve the Finns of the city for religious services and social activities. The Temperance Society and Saima Society had quarters in what was later the vestry of the church. They also maintained a lending library there, which had been started in 1889 with 120 books. After a few years the church congregation bought out the two societies shares in the building. Incidentally, the Messiah organization's new church was dedicated this year - built on Rindge Road.

St, Paul's Lutheran Church is the youngest of the Finnish churches in Fitchburg, organizing in 1943 - and as we know, now have their own church on the corner of Mechanic and Whittemore Streets.

Saima Society eventually built its own building on the corner of Leighton and Foster Streets, and later, in 1912, purchased Saima Park on Scott Road. (Saima's Leighton Street building was sold to the Odd Fellows Lodge in 1956). The Temperance Society had its own building on Grove Street, which now belongs to the Eagles. Both social groups organized bands, orchestras, dramatic clubs, mixed choral groups - with entire families participating. Saima has continued to survive.

There have been other social groups among the Finns, the main one being the Kaleva Lodge, organized in 1908, and it is still active. For some years in the 1930's they sponsored the Finnish Arts and Literature Group, which produced a few special Finnish art exhibits and performances.

Saima has particularly had very active instrumental, choral, and dramatic groups, with regular paid directors. In fact, Saima's dramatics director had a full-time job for many years, as there was a play to be seen at Saima Hall every Saturday night (kids admitted free, who sat in the first couple rows - what a pleasant way for the whole family to spend a Saturday night!) The best Finnish classics and contemporary plays were presented, and there were many guest professional performers and directors from Finland to augment the local casts. The last Finnish play was produced by our club at Saima Park in 1960. This activity has dwindled because of the lack of Finnish-speaking actors. The Saima chorus, too, has lived over the years and has been host to many an artist from Finland. Our young Saima chorus - now associated with the Turner chorus - still maintains this interest.

Tableau III.-- A popular pastime: Chorus rehearsel.

*"Pikku Pyhimys" performer.

* ("Pikku Pyhimys", "The Little Saint" - was a most popular play for the local audiences in the early 1920's, and its favorite leading lady, Lillian Erickson, was considered the "Mary Pickford" of Finnish actresses.)


Before 1906, becoming a citizen was fairly easy for the man and it was no problem at all for his wife. From the time of the earliest known Finn here in Fitchburg, 1840, until early in the 20th century, requirements were minimal: three years' residence in the United States and a character witness completed the whole naturalization process. The wife automatically became a citizen the day her husband did with no requirements at all. In fact, Congress had passed a law in 1860 permitting United States industrialists to send representatives to Europe to recruit workers, and naturally they wanted to make it easy for the worker to become a citizen and thus likely a permanent resident.

The Finnish community stuck together clannishly and showed little interest in learning the bewildering English language. Evening school was started in Fitchburg in 1874 in two rooms of the American House, but the Finnish people did not crowd the classes. At the suggestion of well-meaning employers, the Finnish churches held English language instruction after each Sunday service. Each week the congregation dwindled until finally no one came. Then well-intentioned ladies knocked on doors afternoons, intending to offer instruction - but no one answered the knocks. Evening school did win out and Finnish people did begin to attend, in small numbers at first.

Finns have a fierce loyalty to their motherland and many planned to make money here and then go back to Finland, in which case a U. S. citizenship would actually be a problem. The cohesiveness of the Finnish community and its social self-sufficiency made outside contacts both unnecessary and even unattractive. However, as most of the immigrants were young and their children were born here, the urge to become citizens of their children's country became strong and thru the years the percentage of Finnish immigrants becoming naturalized has increased so that now, after a lethargy that extended thru the 30's and 40's, the Finnish immigrants of today start naturalization proceedings almost immediately.

Tableau IV.-- Here are two Fitchburg immigrants back in the schoolroom, learning to become citizens.


"The Finns are all right but there are a lot of 'reds' and 'subversives' among them" - is a comment that has sometimes been heard. These accusations compare somewhat with the irresponsible charges of extreme rightists that former president Eisenhower and Chief Justice Warren, and other respected leaders of our country, are "communists", or at least under their influence. It is true that there have been communists and other extreme radicals among the Finns here, but they have never had a leading role among the Finns in this community.

Saima Labor Society early in its history was affiliated with the Socialist Party at the time when Norman Thomas, highly respected citizen despite his political and social views, headed the party. But in 1936, Saima withdrew from the Socialist Party because in the depression era left-wing elements gained control and were ready to work with the communists. The Finns as bitter foes of communism withdrew from the Socialist Party and established the Finnish-American League for Democracy, dedicated to upholding the democratic way of life and opposing communism; and also in support of Finnish cultural activities.

May 1st in Finland and other European countries has for long been a day of national jubilation and celebration, greeting the arrival of spring.

As the labor movement in Finland and thruout the world began to grow and assume an important role in society, a new meaning to the celebration of May Day was added. In the early 20th century the position of the common man in society was not as favorable as it is today. Labor in Finland and other countries paraded and demonstrated against injustices. It voiced opposition to child labor, demanded decent working conditions, an 8-hour day, the right for women to vote, etc. Incidentally, it was the president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, who suggested that May Day be used thruout the world to demonstrate for an 8-hour day.

So it was that when the Finnish Labor Society of Saima was organized and became associated with the American labor movement, May Day was celebrated here in Fitchburg with parades and demonstrations - pleading for conditions which are now a part of everyday life and which we now take for granted. Saima played its small part in bringing these reforms into our society.

Tableau V.-- Here is a group joining the May Day parade in Fitchburg on its way from Upper Common to Saima Park, around 1920.

Finnish Newspapers in Fitchburg

The early immigrants came to a strange, new land which wasn't friendly to them...and to make life more difficult they did not know the language of the country. To their credit, barring a few exceptions, they did know how to read. The church of Finland had required that they be able to read in order to marry. So the Finns are a literate people. There is scarcely any illiteracy in Finland.

Letters from home and newspapers from Finland served our immigrants at first - but it took four to five weeks for letters and papers to arrive. There was a need to keep in touch with developments in Finland and to learn about what was happening in the world as well as their new homeland. Thus newspapers came into being.

The first Finnish language newspaper published in Fitchburg was "Totuus" (Truth) edited by Franz Lehtinen. It appeared in 1896. It was a religious paper serving the churches. There was also "Idän Uutinen" (Eastern News), edited by C. W. Lähde, but we know very little about it today.

But as non-church organizations were established there was a need also to report their activities. In 1902 Alex Heisson established the "Pohjan Tähti" (The North Star). He hired Taavi Tainio, a Finnish labor journalist and publicist as editor. Tainio gave prominent space to Saima and labor organizations in other Finnish-American communities. He also wrote editorials and printed articles favorable to his labor point of view, which were in opposition to Heisson's view. Therefore, Heisson, not being able to control Tainio, fired him in December, 1904. This was a fatal mistake: Heisson admitted later that he had made two serious mistakes - first in hiring Tainio and, second, that he fired him.

"Pohjan Tähti" closed its columns to the activities of Saima, and Saima, now a growing organization, needed a newspaper. For a time periodically it published a little sheet called "Ismi" but that was inadequate and so after much discussion, the "Raivaaja" (Pioneer) was established, with Taavi Tainio as its first editor. The first issue of Raivaaja appeared on January 31, 1905. The offices of the new paper were next door to the "Pohjan Tähti", and Pohjan Tähti typesetters were used to set the type for the Raivaaja. The paper was printed in the Sentinel plant. Some called it a "foolish venture" and for a time it seemed that it was as its early days were a desperate struggle for existence. The Pohjan Tähti was well established and used its influence in every way possible among advertisers and the community attempting to kill its new competitor.

Little by little Raivaaja gained support so that after publishing first as a weekly, then tri-weekly, in 1911 it became a daily. It was now on a firm financial footing and its circulation was steadily climbing.

When it became a daily it shocked the whole community by purchasing the handsome Fitchburg Athletic Club building on Wallace Avenue. From then on Raivaaja took a position as the leading Finnish language newspaper in the United States and Canada.

In 1926 Raivaaja purchased the majority stock of the Pohjan Tähti and soon ended its struggling existence. Infuriated with the killing of the Pohjan Tähti, people interested in it established the "Fitchburgin Amerikan Suomalainen" (Fitchburg's Finnish-American) - but it had a short life, ceasing publication in 1929. In 1930 "Fitchburgin Sanomat" (Fitchburg’s News) was first published as an organ of the Finnish churches, but it lasted only until 1939.

This in brief is the history of Finnish journalism in Fitchburg. Benjamin Franklin once said that a newspaper is a poor man's university. That certainly applies to the early Finnish immigrants. In talking to a reader of Raivaaja, one can't help but be impressed with his wide knowledge of politics, history, social and economic problems and culture that he has gained from the reading of his Finnish language newspaper.

And let's not forget that in the adjustment of the Finnish immigrant to his new homeland and his Americanization, the Finnish language newspaper has performed a vital and important role.

Tableau VI.-- A hardworking early editor, of Raivaaja.


The Finnish people are well known for their physical fitness programs and athletic achievements and it was only natural that athletics would become a part of their life here in Fitchburg. Hence, shortly after the organization of Saima, the Reipas Athletic Club was established. When Raivaaja purchased the old Fitchburg Athletic Club building in 1911, there was a ready-made gymnasium for Reipas on the top floor.

Men, women and children participated in the Reipas physical fitness programs and the Raivaaja building hummed with their activity for many, many years during winter, fall and spring. In the summer the physical program shifted to Saima Park, with its field, track and swimming facilities.

Reipas gym teams were particularly proficient in apparatus performances, tumbling, and balancing acts. Chief activities were calisthenics, track, swimming, and basketball. Competitions were held with other Finnish athletic associations, sush as the Gardner "Into", Quincy "Karhu", Maynard "Tarmo", New York "Vesa", etc. A coveted trophy would circulate from winner to winner. Trophies won by Reipas date back to the early 1900's.

Reipas developed top basketball players and track men for the Fitchburg High School for many years. We are, of course, extremely proud of the fact that Erkki Koutonen, Fitchburg's first Olympic participant, was and still is a Reipas boy.

World War II interrupted Reipas activities and an effort to revive them was made after the war. However, interest lagged and Raivaaja closed the gym in September, 1950. Our club then absorbed Reipas as an athletic division.

At the present time Reipas is engaged only in track events. Large crowds are attracted to the track meets held in June and July at Saima Park in conjunction with summer festivals.

Tableau VII.-- A Reipas team.


No history of the Finns in Fitchburg would be complete without at least a mention of the co-ops, with which we are more or less familiar. They are, of course, the largest economic contribution the Finnish people have made to Fitchburg.

The United Co-operative Society of Fitchburg, a consumer cooperative, was established in Fitchburg on February 26, 1910. Earlier attempts had been made - first a dairy and later two grocery stores. They were not very successful. It is interesting to note that when one of the stares closed, its assets were divided among the shareholders, among whom were Waino Aalto's (Co-op's present manager) parents, and their share was half a horse. However, in 1910 a grocery store in West Fitchburg was successfully launched, with a good part of the shareholders being Finnish employes of the paper mills there. Other stores soon followed on Main Street, Rollstone Street and Elm Street - plus a bakery and a dairy. At one time a boarding house was maintained by the Co-op above the grocery store or. Main Street - and the Co-bakery wagon was a welcome and familiar sight on the streets of Fitchburg and the area. Later of course came the gas station, oil business, and gift shop. Today the West Fitchburg grocery is the only neighborhood store operated in Fitchburg by the Co-op.

The Workers' Credit Union was organized at a time when credit unions were practically unheard of in this country, and came about because of a real necessity. John Suominen, the very able business manager of the Raivaaja, recognized that a credit union would meet the needs of the Finnish population as the Raivaaja was getting too involved in banking: - they were receiving more money for stock than they could advantageously use, and the employes were in the habit of borrowing money from the Raivaaja. Also, many Finns were keeping their savings at home as they were reluctant to patronize the banks because of language difficulties. A meeting was held at the Raivaaja on April 8, 1914 and the Workers' Credit Union was incorporated. Today it has over 5,000 members.

The farmers in the area had long formed their own social groups and had cooperated with each other in the way of borrowing and lending farming equipment. A group of Finnish area bluebery growers got together in New Ipswich, New Hampshire in November, 1927 and formed a cooperative to assure more profitable marketing of their berries - this was the start of the United Co-operative Farmers. Three months later it was incorporated as a Massachus federation with headquarters here in Fitchburg. Its services panded, and today the U.C.F. deals primarily in the manufacture distribution of feeds and the marketing of eggs. It also opening a service station locally.

All three cooperatives are million dollar businesses today with a combined volume annually of over 15 million dollars, and are three separate corporations. However, their public relation committees work together as the Fitchburg Council of Cooperative to promote the understanding of the cooperative idea.

Tableau VIII.-- First grocery store.


Fitchburg has for years been a mecca for visiting dignitaries of the Finnish government, Finland's business executives and its artists. There have been many wise and able leaders in the Finnish community, but none made an impact on the community as did Oskari Tokoi and Henry Puranen, both of whom died last year. Mr. Tokoi, Finland's first prime minister, and here Raivaaja's editor for many years, was highly regarded by all Finns in this country as a skilled speaker and writer. Mr. Puranen, first city editor and then business manager of the Raivaaja, more than others of his generation participated in activities outside the Finnish community. However, his services to his own countrymen were outstanding - and for this the Finnish government appointed him honorary vice consul in Fitchburg.

Most of the early Finnish immigrants to Fitchburg fled from a country with wretched living conditions and found one here with life not much better - but there was hope and a flexibility to the social system which was lacking in Finland. Being diligent, persevering, and used to hard work, they made a better place for themselves in a relatively short time. Drawn together by language, often blood ties, and very soon by marriage ties, the Finnish community was relatively slow to integrate. It has been only since their children have grown up and begun to work outside the community, and to marry outside as well, that true integration has been evident.

The Finnish community is not so much isolated now in Fitchburg. They are participating in almost every phase of community life, and they are represented in almost every profession and vocation. The second and third generation Finns are "melting into the pot".

Tableau IX.-- A cross-section of our Finns today:--

doctor )
teacher ) -- representing professions

policeman -- representing municipal emp1oyes, councilors, etc.

artist -- representing the arts: Art Center, Workshop, Community Concert Assn., etc.

businessman -- representing manufacturers, pr oprietors

(Finns introduced the sauna in Fitchburg. According to latest reports, the sauna is becoming a status symbol in many parts of the country. If you don't have a sauna, you are just not "in".

Our businessman represents among others the Finnish "sauna kiuas" manufacturer who has a firm in Fitchburg.)

Girl Scout leader    Representing volunteer
Y.M.C.A.    workers, including fund
Hospital volunteer    drives, etc.

(Note that our hospital volunteer is not wearing a volunteer's smock but a "Marimekko" - a dress of Finnish design which is becoming so popular in this country. President Johnson bought some for his daughters on his recent trip to Finland while vice president.)

We hope that the Finnish heritage will continue to be felt in this community, and that future generations will remember their Finnish backgrounds vith pride.

Since the Finns have been a part of Fitchburg's life for almost one hundred years, we feel we have shared in the growth, of Fitchburg and are happy to celebrate with our neighbors Fitchburg's bicentennial this year.

Original at Fitchburg Historical Society.

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